Vacation


It’s been an eventful last week. I had a pretty productive weekend and went to the dentist for the first time in a few years. If you go for a span without a cleaning there is a certain amount of apprehension before breaking the spell of not visiting. My worries were eased. Though I did have a couple very minor cavities the dentist assured me that they weren’t anything to be concerned about and that all in all the chompers were in great shape.

The hygienist was a little nervous and giggling quite a bit as she worked on me. She was mortified when she sprayed the water pick across my face and inadvertently jabbed me with the dental pick. I took it all in stride and was laughing with her as she dried off my face “I didn’t know I was so sad.” Haha. With no insurance a cleaning and an X-ray  only cost me $120. The appointment is setup in June when I get back to tack care of the cavities and all in all I was feeling pretty satisfied.

Saturday I dropped by Hongdae with one of my Korean buddies. I felt kind of bad for how things turned out. He doesn’t really kick it in that neck of the woods so after a dinner at Shamrock I showed him the ever infamous Zen Bar 1. For the record this fiasco of an establishment isn’t really my bag of tea but he wanted to see some of the more packed establishments and likes hanging out at establishments similar to this. It was early into the night so this was one of the few places with many patrons. I grew weary of the noise and excessive intoxication and decided to head out before the last subway departed back home, my Ilsan homies were incommunicado after a COEX food/wine buffet and was feeling uninspired. Unfortunately he wanted to stay and hang out with some Americans he met. I received a text the next day stating that one of the girls he was talking to charged a few bottles to his tab for the price of 800,000 won ($700ish). I hate it when other foreigners, especially ones from my home country, act scandalous.

The following day was a group excursion up to Kintex in Ilsan for the 4D festival. While this sounded great in theory with appealing promo videos the reality was disappointing. What my friends didn’t seem to translate when looking up this event was that it’s pretty much geared for kids. I love teaching kids but it’s not my idea of a good time spending an afternoon at flashy yet simplistic, glorified amusement park. Especially in a foreign country where there is no English directions. Lesson learned? Look up some reviews from other foreigners beforehand, don’t be the Guinea Pig.

Graduation was on Monday which went off without a hitch. My kids were outstanding in delivering their speeches to the biased audience of their parents. One of my highlights was definitely the conversation with the father of one of my more mischievous students. “So my daughter was behaved in your classes?” He asked with a stoic face. “Yes, she was.” I answered somewhat untruthfully.” He broke into a big grin and replied “You are a nice teacher, but I don’t believe you” and proceeded to laugh heartily. Classic.

My vacation has now begun and it’s off to a superb start. Yesterday was a holiday so six of the crew from school all went out to Yeouinaru on the banks of the Han river. One nice things about being right next to this subway is that it is the lowest in South Korea and if artillery coming from up North were to fall (incredibly improbable) you can take shelter 9 stories below sea level. Tandem bikes and groups of families and young adults on mats were abundant as everyone wanted to enjoy a rare 50+ (Fahrenheit) day. The evening was finished of by a visit to a local Chinese/Korean restaurant near our apartments for Shabu Shabu. This is a dish which starts out with one large pot of boiling broth which is divided into two sides. One features a salty flavor and the other a spicy. You are given a base of greens, bok choy and mushrooms to add to the soup and an assortment of banchan (ever present Korean side dishes) including thinly sliced radish kimchi, sesame tofu ribbons with green onions and peanuts. The selection of protein is up to you and our group of 7 choose the mix with thinly sliced lamb, beef, tripe, frozen tofu cubes and seafood (octopus, muscles and scallops). Sustainful feasting ensued and the entire meal cost a mere 40,000 won ($35) for all of us. I was a little shocked I hadn’t tried this yet but not a month goes by I don’t discover a new cuisine Seoul has to surprise me with (especially since I started eating meat in the last two months).

Today I visited the pension offices and was pleasantly surprised at how easy the whole process was. My round trip ticket didn’t raise any eyebrows and it only cost about 10 minutes of my life. 10 days after I depart I get 10% of my income deposited into my Korean bank account. I applied for a global Visa card from Woori Bank (1-2% surcharge on all purchases) and should be able to easily visit Los Angeles after Arizona before I cruise back North to the Pacific Northwest and my beloved Seattle until the end of April. I’m also hoping to pick up a new laptop while there so these funds were kinda crucial for that kind of spendage. Tonight there is a benefit show in Hongdae with some friends and start my round of goodbyes until Spring before departure next week.

Now I just need to decide what to do for my remaining 8 days. Visit a Jjimjilbang for the first time? Maybe see a Japanese vs. Korean rockabilly band battle? Not quite sure yet. I do know one thing. I love it when your biggest looming problem is how to deal with the freedom of a two month vacation. Viva!

 

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Well things have been a bit hectic here the last couple weeks. Last Wednesday my manager pulled me into her office…and informed me that they were unable to book as many students for the kindergarten classes starting in March. The director was willing to be “generous” and offer a 3 month (unpaid) vacation back home starting in March until June and then come back as an afternoon teacher. “Isn’t that wonderful?” was the delivery. To say I was a little shocked would be an understatement. I just got back from one vacation, and my bank account reflected this. A 3 month limbo, even back home, is not really what I was looking for. If I had a lot of savings and didn’t mind burning it all a backpacking trip through Europe would be great but my current funds don’t really allow for such an expedition.

In many ways I have to reassure myself that coming over here and is not just taking a small detour in accomplishing the goals I have in life. I look forward to Masters school and starting my career back home and justify my time spent here as a great way to become a more well-rounded student and gain a larger perspective on the world. I do truly believe this. There is a small nagging voice in the back of my head that does sneak up from time to time and sel-criticisms of just procrastinating and enjoying the easy lifestyle that Korea offers ex-pat teachers is not the path right now. 3 months of coach surfing and spending all of my savings would be giving those self-doubts a little credence in my opinion.

Back in Bellingham I worked afternoon and evenings at UPS immediately after graduating. While having the day to myself was nice I remember that a lot of my time interacting with friends was later at night and most of the friends who socialize at these hours do so at bars over drinks. This is all fine when you are still riding that postgraduation high. I’m 26 now and trying to flex some of the maturity I will need to really accomplish the things I desire to do in my life and revisiting this lifestyle doesn’t have a huge appeal to me.

Plus, while many teachers I talk to don’t really like the kindergarten classes (especially other guys) these are the times when I get the most gratification from teaching. The physical energy you have to expend is quite a bit more with students at this age but the payoff is immense. The influence and admiration you gain with them and being able to see how rapidly you are affecting them in a positive manner is one of my favorite things about teaching.

I explained both these things to my bosses and a compromise was struck. I am going home early March and coming back near the end of April to start kindergarten classes in June. My director gave me a decent raise and is going to put me back on the payroll in May. I will be the most veteran foreign and morning teacher at this point and the second longest teacher at my school. I will also be the oldest one. Amazing how much can change in one year.

Enough about work, on to my impromptou trip back home. It took a little scrambling to figure out the logistics but I’m already anticipating my return home. Aroung March 9th I fly out from Incheon to Tucson, Arizona. My best friend is attending school there for his Masters and has Spring Break starting on the 10th. I have never really been to the Southwest and look forward to not only the adventures but the warm temperatures and cuisine of an Arizona Spring. After a week or two there I’m cruising over to LA to reconnect with some friends and family for about a week and then flying up to Seattle for the duration of April.

Sometimes you have to roll with the punches, such is life. I’ve got my gloves laced tight, a smile on my face and am ready for some epic adventure-filled rounds Stateside. Viva!

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Thailand and I still miss it. Among the top of the list includes:

From city to country these shrines are ever abundant across the landscape of Thailand. Behind it you can just make up the pick up game of soccer by all the boys wearing sneakers in a dirt lot.

1. The laid-back mentality and generous hospitality of the locals.

2. The amazing cuisine (I definitely prefer the fresh vs. fermented style of authentic Asian cuisines which was a huge difference between Korea and Thailand), I’ve always enjoyed Thai food back home but it pales in comparison to the amazing variety and richness of the local dishes while there. Not to mention the dirt cheap prices. Example? Roasted Sea Bass and deep-fried Morning Glory with hard-boiled eggs.

If you can judge something by its lowest common denominator then let me just say this "Even the mall food was Good!"

3. The warm temperature in the 80s spent beach/pool side and some (but not all) of the cheap yet fairly decadent hotels I stayed at.

Catching some rays and reading some Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay with a Tiger Lager in hand. Oh yeah, those are waterfalls coming off the arches on the far end...

Instead of providing a full recap, my posts on Thailand are going to be focused upon two of the real highlights of my trip (which coincidentally I managed to actually take some photos of). The weekend market at Mo Chit in Bangkok and the island of Koh Samoi in Southern Thailand.

While I used to frequent the farmers’ market in my college-town of Bellingham I was in no way prepared for the daunting size and spectrum represented in the weekend market here. For example, at one point we became slightly lost in between the pet section and the florist section. Both were indoors and easily over an acre in size. The flora section was a nice break actually after the fauna section, not just because of the far more pleasing aroma. While it was nice to see so many dogs that I rarely see in Korea (Black Labs, Newfoundlands and German Shepherds to name a few) it was slightly depressing to see the size of the cages they were all enclosed in.

Leave a trail of bread crumbs when you enter...least you never exit the labyrinth of the indoor section of the market.

Immediately upon walking in I snagged a young coconut juice (best cure for the celebratory Christmas Eve night prior) for a mere 65 cents. This nectar of the gods has the same pH level of human blood and, fun fact of the day, was used as a substitute for saline when supplies were low during WWII. This was one of many different forms of juices you could purchase here, ranging from the familiar, Lemon, to the exotic, Rambutan, options were plentiful.

"Wait, so which one is the best to mix with snake's blood, the original Red Bull and Samsung?" Samsung is Thai Whiskey not the Korean company and Red Bull is from Thailand but has a different recipe here, syrupy and kinda feels like it has amphetamines in it...

Food was great as the small noodle/curry stalls operated on every corner. I gained quite a bit of respect for them right of the bat when I noticed that the basil, green onion and cilantro was all still alive, growing in vases in the center of the table. These as well as the green beans, cabbage and bean sprouts, were definitely taken advantage of while I feasted right next to other, Thai, American and Japanese, customers at the small plastic tables provided. Oh, did I mention the abundance of LIMEs in Thailand?! This delectable citrus is one of my favorites and I had developed a craving something fierce the prior. Add on to this that some stalls had small, mobile garden patches nearby and the atmosphere was superb.  Needless to say my hunger was sated and then some.

BANGARANG!

Sa-wat-dee kraup Green Thumb.

The diversity found at the locale was also amazing to me. You would see an Australian family on holiday, all drinking some Singha lager (Granny included),   shoulder to shoulder with a family of Sikhs on vacation from the subcontinent. The cacophony of different dialects and languages coming at you from all directions (megaphones, hawkers, conversations right next to you) was slightly disorienting at first. But much like a lot of the discordant music I like (definitely thinking of one of my favorite bands, Converge) after some time you fall into the groove of it and appreciate the harmonies therein.

Seoul is rather limited in comparison when it comes to cultural diversity. There is and immigrant population but it is by no means a real tourist destination. While the foreign district Itaewon and my area of residence may be exceptions, in terms of a large variety, the majority of non-natives you see here fit two types. American GIs and English teachers from one of the English dominant countries with Americans and Canadians being the majority here in Seoul.

The region I call home, Youngdeungpo-Gu, actually has the highest concentration of immigrants in the whole city. These are Chinese workers, if you look around closely the signs alternate between Hangul and Chinese characters. Some blocks are completely lacking in Neon signs and Hangul and are 100% Chinese. As my good Korean-American friend told me “It’s like I was magically transported from Seoul to Beijing.”

Did dabble in a little budget commerce myself, though they were all undoubtedly knock-offs I was pretty satisfied at what, for me, was quite a bit of shopping. For around $15 I purchased a pair of Chelsea home match trunks, RayBan shades, Diesel sandals and decent board shorts. Not too shabby for someone who abhors the mall and shops rarely to never. I was baffled at the Arabian gentleman who purchased a large quantity of Thai high-end cutlery and china plates and whatnot. Figure they must offer some shipping options. Personally, I wouldn’t want to try to hauling that through the packed, bustling crowds to get out.

More packed than a Seoul rush hour subway. No easy feat.

One thing I was glad we didn’t encounter across the vast yet cramped expanse of the market was the rather large cock-fighting section. Muay Thai matches with potential broken bones? Sure, they are volunteering for that. Animals eviscerating each other with razor blades? Not my bag. The tourist tuktuks smashing their way through the crowds with loud music out of low-quality speakers also wasn’t the most impressive.

Nonchalant as all get out. These kids were killin it.

On the flipside there was a multitude of singers and musicians busking on corners. From older gentlemen playing traditional drums to the groups or solo young boys in vibrant attire playing these wooden, almost Peruvian wind-pipe reminiscent, instruments. All in all I had a wonderful time and would definitely recommend this stop to anyone visiting Bangkok.

In terms of nightlife Busan did have its options. Even though I know that Korea seems to fixate on the strangest hodge-podge of American culture and that there are no real copyright laws I was not prepared for…”It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Bar! It was nothing like the show, far too clean with a trendy, hip Korean staff. It would have been priceless to meet a Korean version of Frank (Danny Devito’s character) from the show though. I am not sentimental but will treasure the logoed lighter I procured there until I lose it like all the other lighters (there’s a reason I don’t buy Zippos).

Trademarked logos are nonexistent over here.

Other than this there were a few stops by Wolfhound Pub (kind of ironic to travel to the opposite corner of Korea to visit the sister establishment of the one in Itaewon) for real darts and some liquid and solid sustenance. Their fried cutlet style garbanzo/black bean burger with potato wedges is great, order the added on jalepenos, cheese and fried egg and you’ve created pubfare ambrosia. I also frequent this establishment for the “Veggie British Breakfast” (does this term even exist?!) of baked beans, fried eggs over easy, hashbrowns, toast and fried tomatoes which is quite a filling meal for less than $7, though it does make me miss the HP brown sauce and Newcastle on tap they have at the George and Dragon British futbol pub back home.

Haven't found anything close to this scene over here, *sigh*.

One exceptionally wild evening took place outside of the bars at Haundae beach. Roman candles were shot and lifeguard towers were the base of operations for Soju-swilling and Cass shot-gunning missions. Numerous people were spotlighted by the huge illuminating device on top of the shore-side police/coast guard station nearby. This didn’t stop my coworker (who shall remain nameless…) from eliciting a chorus of shrieks followed by giggles from a nearby group of college-aged Korean girls when he disrobed and ran out into the ocean. Luckily the spotlight did not hit him, I feel public exposure/indecency fines would be rather heavy in a country as modest as Korea.

A much more clandestine activity was visiting the Busan aquarium the next day. This is the largest aquarium in South Korea. After two days of laying in the sun on the beach and a morning spent hiking up and down stairs at a Buddhist temple under a scorching summer sun the cool darkness of the aquarium was sublime. Icing on the cake was definitely my favorite exhibit/animals there….Sea Otters! A most excellent vacation to be sure.

If I could be any mammal on the ocean seas...